Thursday, August 23, 2012

Love is complicated.



I heard “Every Breath You Take” by The Police the other day, and it made me think about the tension between Peter Walsh and Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.  Each clearly still loves the other on some level, but the complicated layers of their past and present prevent them from being together as a healthy couple, yet their friendship suffers from the strains of unresolved emotions.

Sting sings about watching someone, and that someone belonging to him, and it’s not really a love song despite the yearning tone and the music itself.  If you revisit the lyrics, such as
Every move you make, every vow you break
Every smile you fake, every claim you stake, I'll be watching you”,
you will note that if you are pining away for somebody, chances are you don’t accuse them of breaking vows or faking smiles because we know those habits aren’t lovable.  To each his own, I guess, but in my book, those habits are not lovable.  They are needly, prickly and snarky statements by someone who’s hurt, angry, and perhaps spiteful.

Almost stalkerish in his repetition of the phrase, “I’ll be watching you,” Sting creeps me out a bit on this one.  If someone were to repeat to you “I’ll be watching you” no matter what you do, you might be tempted to call the actual police.  However, because it’s Sting and because the poetic sounds of the notes captivate us, we as listeners are deceived into construing the words as those of merely a man with a broken heart.   Side note: I saw Sting live at a poetry reading at Lincoln Center a few years ago, and he was not creepy at all; on the contrary, he was congenial with the audience and there were no criminal undertones to the poetry he read.

Sting brings me to Peter Walsh of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway because he can’t move past his past with Clarissa, nor she with hers.  Peter’s inner monologue (see below) is what gives him away to the reader, but his words are mostly friendly and warm to Clarissa.  He fakes his smiles, pops in for an impromptu visit on her doorstep, and yet his attitude toward her intrigues me; he is the one who went to her when in London, yet he can’t stand her, or he resents her so much for choosing another life, another husband, that his visit is more of a test for himself.  On page 40 he thinks:

“Here she is mending her dress; mending her dress as usual…here she’s been sitting all the time I’ve been in India; mending her dress; playing about; going to parties; running to the House and all that, he thought, growing more and more irritated, more and more agitated, for there’s nothing in the world so bad for some women as marriage, he thought; and politics; and having a Conservative husband, like the admirable Richard.  So it is, so it is, he thought, shutting his knife with a snap.”

You can love someone and be angry with the person, but to be perpetually agitated?  That’s complicated.  Is he conflicted because he can’t have her?  Is that okay sometimes, to be so annoyed by the person you love?  That’s the complication of an unresolved past.  Perhaps it’s best, or at least easier, to avoid contact with the other person, but Peter seeks out Clarissa; it was his choice to visit.  Maybe such agitation is okay only in the thinker’s head because it’s temporary.  You high schoolers don’t know this firsthand yet, but marriage is hard work.  You might witness the hard work that marriage is, but unless laws have changed in Connecticut, not one of you is married. 

The way Woolf captures the tension between Peter and Clarissa is astounding, and one of the ways she does it is by capturing their internal monologue and transitioning seamlessly between their thoughts.  We know that Clarissa has unresolved feelings on several pages, and one of those examples is on page 41 when Woolf ends a paragraph with Peter’s thoughts and begins a new one with Clarissa’s:

“For why go back like this to the past? he thought.  Why make him think it again?  Why make him suffer, when she had tortured him so infernally?  Why?
‘Do you remember the lake?’ she said, in an abrupt voice, under the pressure of an emotion which caught her heart, made the muscles of her own throat stiff, and contracted her lips in a spasm as she said ‘lake’… She looked at Peter Walsh; her look, passing through all that time and that emotion, reached him doubtfully; settled on him tearfully; and rose and fluttered away, as a bird touches a branch and rises and flutters away.”

The tension builds as the two sit next two each other, all the while thinking of the past while trying to maintain a happy fa├žade replicating the present.  This scene continues until Peter announces that he is in love on page 43, but not with her, and he ends up crying with Clarissa there to comfort him, and she kisses him on page 45, and she thinks, “If I had married him, this gaiety would have been mine all day!” and she means it – although she thinks Peter’s letters to her are dull.  So, yes, in love there is conflict, as proven by Peter and Clarissa, and Woolf depicts such tension as if she has lived it herself.

We all have an internal monologue running most of the time, married or not, and if an occasional inner thought is less then loving toward one’s partner in a moment or period of tension, that’s just an emotional and momentary expression.  It doesn’t mean the love is all gone; it’s just morphed into handling differing types of feelings, such as disappointment or frustration.  That expression “the honeymoon is over” actually means something, and someday you might know about that, but not now.

The honeymoon never happened for Clarissa and Peter because it was over before it began.  When Woolf deepens the other Dalloway characters of Sally Seton and Septimus Smith (was Woolf a fan of alliteration?), you learn even more about layers of love and how complicated it can be, but that’s a thought for another day.